Fashion: Natural instinct for the Next Big Thing - and it happened to be British

Two young friends with hardly any know-how open a shop. Recipe for disaster? Not at all. Koh Samui in Covent Garden, is simply the best - and friendliest - place to buy young British designer fashion, says Melanie Rickey. Photographs by Nicola Kurtz

Four years ago, a couple of disgruntled twentysomething Londoners sat on Camden Lock in North London looking at all the market stalls and wishing they could start one of their own.

"Simply so we could be our own boss," explains Paul Sexton, who, at the time, was a sales assistant for French Connection. "Then we realised we would have to stand in the rain and snow," says Talita Zoe, his partner, who at that time was working in an office. Instead of just dreaming of better things, the pair gave up their jobs and went to see the bank manager.

Sexton and Zoe had decided to open a little fashion shop in Covent Garden. It opened in June 1994 on a tiny back street with no passing trade. They called it Koh Samui, and it cost pounds 80 a week to rent.

"At first we had absolutely no idea what to put in the shop," says Sexton. "We knew nothing about fashion, except what we liked."

In fact, the pair knew so little about where to find clothes for their shop that Great Portland Street, the traditional centre for London's rag trade, and Commercial Street in the East End, were their first ports of call. They found nothing inspiring, so they went to look for lighting instead.

This is where Lady Luck took a hand. Through a couple of chance meetings Sexton and Zoe came across the designer Stephen Fuller, and through him they met Janice Taylor, a jeweller who was modelling for him. Then, over a pint of beer at the local pub, they met Justin Oh and Anthony Gibson. All were designers just starting out, and Koh Samui became their first stockist.

As buyers, they learned fast. Today Koh Samui is the only designer boutique worth mentioning in connection with young British design talent. The closure of their nearest rival in Covent Garden, Jones Femme, in August helped to raise their status, and though the pair didn't admit it at first, Sexton lets slip with a giggle: "It felt like Christmas."

Jones's owner, Stuart Molloy, closed his womenswear shop because of increased competition from department stores, and returned to his speciality - menswear. The other designer emporiums of any bearing in London - Browns, Pellicano and A La Mode - can sometimes seem a bit rarefied and forbidding to younger customers. Koh Samui has a deliberately non-aggressive sales policy, and is staffed by the owners on most days, along with Jennifer, a laid-back Australian.

The shop on Monmouth Street is a totally refreshing shopping experience, with rails full of the most desirable designer clothes one could hope for. It's a bit like walking into the fashion equivalent of a luxury sweet shop. Radiohead and The Verve emanate from discreet speakers, and there's plenty of natural light to make the space seem airy. Rather than each rail bearing the work of any one designer, as in other boutiques, the garments are mixed up, as if each rail is someone's very own capsule wardrobe.

On one rail, for example, a YMC fleece sweat-top hangs next to a delicately beaded slip dress by Abe Hamilton, to be followed by a tailored grey flannel trouser suit by Joseph and a cashmere jumper by Clements Ribeiro. At the end hangs a beautiful, slim-line, belted mohair coat by Elspeth Gibson, and underneath are shoes by Patrick Cox and Pollini. This theme cleverly runs throughout the shop, with each individual rail helping the shopper to see finely crafted, special clothes in context with day-to-day pieces. In the main, Joseph own-label provides the basic pieces, but next season Martin Kidman will be added to the line-up.

Sexton, 32, and Zoe, 29, evidently have very good taste in clothes. Their natural instinct for the Next Big Thing helped them enormously in the early days; they were even bestowed with the NBT tag without knowing it. The pair know it now, of course, but are still modest.

More important than a Next Big Thing tag, as anyone in business knows, is understanding what will sell. When asked which designer label sells the most, the pair shrug, and mutter, "All of them sell well." A department store such as Barney's in New York would pay them a fortune for their "eye".

Koh Samui have recently added a new dimension to their business. From the start the shop had an open door to young designers hoping to gain that all-important first stockist. David Purves was one of them. He walked in from the street with a hanging bag containing his thick, worsted wool jackets, intricately cut coats and low-slung trousers. "With David, we knew straightaway," says Sexton. A few weeks later Purves clothes took pride of place in the Koh Samui window during Fashion Week. Now the shop represents Purves to foreign buyers along with Ruti Danan, a former Alexander McQueen aide who is famous for designing his distressed lace dresses, and Juan Lera, a Spanish, London-based designer known for his exquisite tailoring.

Andrew Groves wasn't as lucky first time round, but Sexton and Zoe are now looking again at his and Tristan Webber's clothes.

Their clientele is pretty cool, too. Helena Christensen, Amber Valetta and Tracey Thorn love Christa Davis, as does Bjork, who also buys Hussein Chalayan. Saffron Spanckling from Republica buys Copperwheat Blundell, and Laura Dern buys Abe Hamilton. The celebs are half the story. During my visit a stream of women came in for a spin through the shop, and four expensive items were sold in half-an-hour - on a weekday morning.

Sexton and Zoe caught on to something they didn't even know was happening in 1994 - that British fashion design and its status were about to go through the roof on an international scale. Now they are happy to enjoy their current position as the best designer fashion shop in London - but they won't sit still for long. There are more shops to open, and new designers to discover.

Koh Samui, 65 Monmouth Street, London WC2 (0171-240 4280).

Top three: beaded bits

Beaded handbag, pounds 35, by Lulu Guinness for Debenhams, 334-338 Oxford Street, London W1 and selected branches (inquiries, 0171-408 4488)

Black beaded slip dress, pounds 55, by Warehouse, 19-21 Argyll Street, London W1 and branches nationwide (inquiries, 0171-278 3491)

Beaded slippers, pounds 20, by Paul Smith, 84-86 Sloane Avenue, London SW3 (inquiries, 0171-379 7133)

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
News
Dawkins: 'There’s a very interesting reason why a prince could not turn into a frog – it's statistically too improbable'
newsThat's Richard Dawkins on babies with Down Syndrome
Sport
Malky Mackay salutes the Cardiff fans after the 3-1 defeat at Liverpool on Sunday
footballFormer Cardiff boss accused of sending homophobic, racist and messages
Sport
Rodgers showered praise on Balotelli last week, which led to speculation he could sign the AC Milan front man
transfers
Life and Style
life – it's not, says Rachel McKinnon
Arts and Entertainment
Eye of the beholder? 'Concrete lasagne' Preston bus station
architectureWhich monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music(who aren't Arctic Monkeys)
News
Lizards, such as Iguanas (pictured), have a unique pattern of tissue growth
science
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Senior Network Integration/Test Engineer

    £250 - £300 per day: Orgtel: Senior Network Integration/Test Engineer Berkshir...

    Software Developer - Newcastle - £30,000 - £37,000 + benefits

    £30000 - £37000 per annum + attractive benefits: Ashdown Group: .NET Developer...

    Trainee Recruitment Consultant

    £20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £40,000: SThree: SThree Group have been well e...

    Digital Project Manager/BA

    £300 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: An experienced Digital/Ecommerc...

    Day In a Page

    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
    eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

    eBay's enduring appeal

    The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

    'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
    Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

    Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

    Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
    Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

    Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

    After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
    Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

    Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

    After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
    Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

    Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

    Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
    7 best quadcopters and drones

    Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

    From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
    Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

    A descent into madness in America's heartlands

    David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
    BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

    BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

    Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home